FORT GARLAND, CO — It's about 4 a.m. and a bad start for the guys from Land Rover Naperville, a suburban Chicago store.
The three-man dealership team is 1,000 miles from home, trying with flashlights in the dark to find their Land Rover Discovery's tires and jack, hidden yonder in the woods in a remote and rugged stretch of southern Colorado.
They're not doing so well.
It's a sputtering start of what will be a grueling day competing against employees from five other Land Rover stores in a test of human ability and SUV agility.
It's an off-beat, off-road competition that Land Rover North America (LRNA) calls “TreK.”
Employees from 42 of the 150 Land Rover dealerships in North America participated in earlier regional contests. Six teams of finalists reached the main event here, on sprawling ranchland the Forbes publishing family owns.
TreK's first challenge? Use a compass, coordinate map and GPS readings to find the jack and tires. Then haul them back, put on the tires and motor off to a series of off-road runs requiring teamwork, muscle and driving skills.
Nearly an hour into it, Land Rover Naperville is just getting started. They erred in taking coordinate readings while standing beside their Discovery rather than in front of it, per the instructions.
“We may be in last place now, but it's 5 a.m. and there's a long day ahead of us,” says team member Jim Peraud, Naperville's service manager.
By the time it was over — after maneuvering along so many rocky trails, crossing creeks, biking, kayaking, driving up and down steep terrain, pulling and pushing out of mud pits and assorted jams, spanning a pivot bridge and, finally, in a cold rain, inching and winching the SUVs up a 45-degree slope of log rails — after a full day of that — the mud-splattered team of Land Rover Eden Prairie (MN) finished first. Naperville placed fourth in the judging.
All the exhausted competitors, some hobbling from muscle strains, kicked back that night at a reception in the lodge of the Forbes Trinchera Ranch, a 250-sq.-mi. spread, Colorado's largest privately held chunk of land and the site of this year's TreK.
“To win, you can't just be a rocket scientist, or you can't just be a super athlete, but when you combine the two, you have Land Rover Eden Prairie,” says Bob Burns, LRNA's national training and development manager.
Welcome to dealership training, Land Rover-style.
TreK's goal is to pump dealership folk with strong doses of product knowledge, brand adventure, team building and a level of four-wheel drive expertise that no one else offers their retail representatives.
Says Burns, “We know this is tough on people who aren't regular athletes, but the experience is worth it in terms of personal growth and benefits to the business.
“Everyone who has gone through TreK tells us it helps them in their daily jobs and in communicating the Land Rover brand values to their customers and fellow employees.
“How do you get retail employees excited and exposed to the product so they can convey that to the customers? This does that. I don't know of anything else like it in the industry.”
TreKie Dan Moore of Land Rover Denver South, says, “It's a great experience and something to take back to the store.”
Tim Scully, a service technician at Land Rover Greenville (SC), the immediate past champion, says he “fell in love with Land Rovers” as a TreK competitor.
“You bring that back to the dealership,” he says. “You realize there are SUVs and there are SUVs.”
Team building aside, tempers can flare when things go wrong, such as miscalculating where the jack and tires are in the woods (“I thought you found it, I thought you said you found it!”)
It's never escalated to fisticuffs, says Burns. “But there has been some verbal abuse. New York and New Jersey teams swear at each other a lot.”
It's sometimes hard to convince Land Rover's parent, Ford Motor Co., that this is dealership training, not fun and games, says a LRNA executive.
“This isn't cheap,” says the executive. “Sometimes the response from Ford is, ‘How much?’ This is dealership training?'”
Dealerships pay transportation costs for their employees, LRNA covers the rest.
TreK has been so successful in promoting dealership morale and higher sales, it's gone global, with international competition held in South Africa in 2001.
“It's a unique motivational competition that gives Land Rover an edge in the marketplace,” says Sally Eastwood, LRNA's vice president-marketing. “Competitors return to their retail facilities with the enthusiasm and spirit of adventure inherent in Land Rover brand values.”
Scully's boss, Jack Frasher, owner of four Land Rover dealerships, including the past TreK champ, says, “TreK creates a genuine love of the product from the receptionist to the office manager to the sales staff and technicians.”
To him, the event reinforces and reenergizes employees, both the participants and their colleagues back at the dealership.
“The guys are in awe of this event,” says Frasher whose champion Greenville team consisted of a salesman, technician and service advisor. “There's a big send-off for them. They represent us like a sports team.”
He says such adventurous competition “might not matter at a traditional dealership, but it does for us.”
This is the fifth TreK since it started in 1996. It's the first since 2000.
The first U.S. TreK was held in Georgia on a 300-acre farm owned by Atlanta Land Rover dealer Mark Hennessey.
The Forbes Trinchera Ranch was picked this year for its vastness, ruggedness and natural beauty. TreK events covered 6,000 of its 160,000 acres.
Winning Land Rover of Eden Prairie scored 630 out of a 700. Second place went to Land Rover Denver South with a score of 580 and third place to Land Rover Buckhead (Atlanta, GA) with 560, followed by Naperville, The AutoMaster (Shelburne, VT) and Land Rover of Richmond (Vancouver, BC).
“It just keeps getting better and better,” says TreK veteran Greg Skelton of AutoMaster.
THE RECORD BOOK
|Here's a rundown of TreK winners and locations:|
|1996:||Land Rover North Point (Alpharetta, GA); Hennessey Farm, Social Circle, GA||1997:||Land Rover North Point; Tinmouth hunting preserve outside Manchester, VT.|
|1999:||Land Rover Buckhead (Atlanta, GA); Bodega Bay, CA.|
|2000:||Land Rover Greenville (SC); Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, W.VA.|
|2003:||Land Rover Eden Prairie (MN); Trinchera Ranch, Fort Garland, CO.|
OPTOMETRIST FULFILLS VISION TO BECOME A DEALER
He had to beg for his first Land Rover franchise. Now he's got four stores. By Steve Finlay
Among Land Rover's best dealers is an optometrist who says he had to “beg and plead for more than three years” before getting his first franchise 10 years ago.
Now Jack. L. Frasher Jr. owns four Land Rover stores in the Southeast, including one that relinquished Land Rover's TreK trophy to the new winning dealership team.
Frasher shelved his contact-lens business to become a full-time auto dealer after opening his second dealership, Land Rover of Ashville (NC) in 1998.
He recalls, “I was running the optometry business as well as two dealerships in different states. I said to myself, ‘This is crazy. You need to focus on one thing. Your manufacturer and your banker will want you to focus on one thing.’”
Since then he's built two more stores, Land Rover Columbia (SC) in 2001 and Land Rover Hilton Head (SC) in April.
Persistence led to the opening of his first store, Land Rover of Greenville in his South Carolina hometown.
Turns out, the timing and circumstances were right all around:
He had wanted to realize a dream of owning a distinctive European-brand dealership. Land Rover of North America (LRNA) wanted to fulfill a vision for a new type of dealership, dubbed a “center,” conveying the spirit of the brand through hunting-lodge architecture, wood-beam ceilings and an off-road demo track for customers to try out the U.K.-built SUV line.
“My dad was a dentist and a car nut,” says Frasher. “I was always in love with European brands. I had a small Alfa-Romeo dealership and a BMW motorcycle store on the side. But I wanted a Land Rover franchise.
“I put together data that the Greenville area (pop. 56,000) could support a Land Rover dealership. I believed there'd be an audience for such a specialty manufacturer. I presented that to Land Rover North America and pled my case.”
At the time, LRNA was trying to interest existing dealers in building the exclusive retail centers. Charlie Hughes, then LRNA president, met with dealers to pitch the idea at a series of small meeting.
Almost as an afterthought, Frasher was invited too. He wasn't a dealer, but had shown a keen interest, and “I bugged them enough.” Also, the company was having a hard time getting dealers to invest in the plan.
Recalls Frasher, “The centers were a hard sell because at the time there was only one Land Rover model. Charlie Hughes, in asking for dealer participation in building the centers, promised new product to come.
“It was tough to convince a group of dealers to spend a lot of money like that on a promise of new product.
“There were a lot of statistics. There was talk about leveraging the Internet. But essentially there was Charlie and his team with a vision.
“I spent 3-1/2 years trying to get a franchise. I think Charlie invited me to the meeting figuring I might not want it anyway. But I did. I knew exactly what I wanted.
“Land Rover did a great job convincing dealers to build the exclusive centers and how such focused facilities could be profitable. They showed us renderings, test tracks, product. They highlighted the brand's spirit of adventure. I was hooked.”
He opened his first Land Rover store in a converted building in Greenville. It was Land Rover's seventh dedicated stand-alone center. There are now 105 of those out of 150 Land Rover stores in North America.
Frasher says he spent $2-4 million for each of the three dealerships he subsequently built from scratch.
“The first one was a lot less expensive,” he says. “We spent a lot of money to make them, not luxurious, but relaxing and homey.”
Pacing his dealerships is the Ashville store with deliveries of 180 new and about as many used units last year. A Jaguar franchise is now part of that property.
Frasher's stores do well on customer-satisfaction surveys.
Sometimes it's the little things, such as answering the phone by the third ring and “whoever answers the call ‘owns’ it until it's handled properly,” he says.
Another crowd pleaser is the store's soft-sales approach.
“I tell some customers, ‘Your wife will get the same good price as the most high-powered negotiator.’ They sit back and relax when I tell them that. Get that out of the way, and you can spend 80% of the time selling the vehicle.”
His employees are “very motivated and show it,” says James Ramsey, who reports on Land Rover dealership doings for an internal LRNA publication. “They are cooperative, friendly and plugged into the brand philosophy. The stores get consistently high customer-satisfaction scores.”
To promote the SUV brand and product, Frasher's stores sponsor peridodic off-roading events. They're so popular, participation is limited.
“We've had high-level executives, whom you ordinarily wouldn't get five minutes of their time, spending the afternoon at these things with their wives and kids,” says Frasher.